Feel free to skip if you don’t want to read a long post that is essentially me bitching and moaning about my life. First world problems.
On July 4th, while most Americans were celebrating Independence Day, I got on a plane for a two week trip. There was very little fun to be had on this trip and I came home to greater sadness.
I had to go to Ottawa for business. And since I was going to be so close to New York City, I booked a trip to go there to visit my mother for a week. She’s 94, lives alone, and it was just over a year since I’d last seen her. And just two days before the trip, my dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given just weeks to live.
(Bogey, but quite a few years ago.)
Since the Ottawa trip was for a client project and the project is being billed on a T&M basis, I had to have a plane ticket that was roundtrip Manila/Ottawa. I’d have to handle getting to NYC on my own, and I’d have to return to Manila through Ottawa, even though that would mean a quasi-insane itinerary. The only alternative would have been to skip NYC altogether, but that wasn’t an option.
I flew Philippine Airlines from Manila to Vancouver. They rolled out what must be the shittiest jumbo jet in their fleet. So aside from some of the worst airline food I’ve ever encountered, no individual video screens and no power at the seats. I was able to upgrade to a front row coach seat for US$50 so I did that, only to then find out that the flight was more than half empty and I could have easily had an entire row to stretch across (though at least my company will reimburse me for that $50).
In Ottawa, I stayed at a vaguely historic hotel, the Lord Elgin, walking distance from the Parliament buildings and other touristy spots like the Byward Market. All of the restaurants in easy walking distance of the hotel, at least all of the ones I ate in, were depressingly ordinary or worse. And when I got sick the second night, I had to walk 5 blocks to the nearest still-open pharmacy to stock up on meds.
In terms of food, I was not going to try poutine. I remember when I first encountered it in Hong Kong and asked what it was. French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. I thought someone was having a laugh but turns out it is a real thing. I’ve tried it in Hong Kong and in Manila and while I presume it should be better in Ottawa, it wasn’t something that I felt I needed to pursue.
But I did follow my friends’ recommendations for Montreal smoked meat. I had it at a branch of Dunn’s Famous Deli, where I presume it should be as good as one can find. I found it inferior to pastrami – different cut of meat and very different preparation so while the end result looks similar, I’ll take pastrami any day (which I did, once I got to New York).
The Ottawa Blues Festival kicked off while I was still in Ottawa. More than 100 acts, ranging from Kanye West to Deep Purple to Richard Thompson to Robyn Hitchcock. I would have been thrilled to see the latter two. And some of the acts were staying in the same hotel I was in. (At one point I rode up in the lift with a bunch of Brits, my age or older, all carrying guitars. I didn’t recognize them but we chatted a bit and when I wished them “a great night,” one responded by saying “Bless you.”) Since I got sick early in the trip, I had to keep it together long enough to get the work done, which meant every night after dinner back to my hotel room. No live music, no drinking, no fun whatsoever. I could have chosen to extend my trip a few days, but it would have cost me over US$200 to rebook my plane tickets, not to mention the cost of hotels, and so I decided to live without it.
Ottawa, overall, beautiful city (especially in summer time) but not the most exciting place I’ve ever been. I will probably need to return before the end of the year; maybe I’ll have time to find something that appeals more to me.
The day I finished up and flew down to NYC was especially unfun. (I described it in a previous post.) And then, 8 days of dealing with my mom while also Skyping with my wife and finding out that my dog was declining faster than expected and it started to become a real concern over whether or not he’d still be alive once I got home.
My mother is 94 and lives alone. I have no brothers or sisters but I do have a few cousins who still live in NYC and look in on her. Some of her neighbors also help out from time to time. Her health is quite good for 94. Her eyesight is declining but the biggest issue is that she doesn’t eat. She’s crazy thin and has no energy and I basically had to be the adult and force her to eat more than she normally does.
The plan is to move her to Manila before the end of the year. “Will I like Manila?” she asks. “No, you won’t. You’ll hate it. But you’ll love the house and you’ll love that you won’t be alone any more.” But now her thing is that the room we have for her in the house isn’t exactly to her liking. She wants a room big enough for a queen sized bed, a reclining chair and a couple of pieces of furniture. Actually the room is probably big enough for all of the furniture she wants as long as she goes with a single bed. She’s 5 feet tall and weighs under 100 pounds but says she can’t sleep in a single bed and I must be crazy to think that she’s going to end her life in a closet. Fine, I tell her. I’ve done the best I can, and if that’s not good enough for you, stay here all alone or go live with my brother.
My mother doesn’t handle technology well. Of course, she’s 94 years old! But that doesn’t stop her from wanting stuff. (Now you know where I get it from.) She wants an iPhone, even though she can’t see the screen and never uses the mobile phone she has. She has a Kindle 2 and saw my Kindle Voyage and wanted that. So we ordered one from Amazon, it arrive and I spent a couple of hours getting it all set up and getting all of her library loaded onto it, and within 30 seconds she decided that she preferred the old Kindle. I told her to not make up her mind within 30 seconds and to at least spend a couple of days with it before returning it. By the time I left, she said she’d keep it, but I think she’s still reaching for the older, heavier, clunkier model first each time.
Verizon had come to her building and we went and talked to the sales guys. She could get everything she had with Optimum and for US$40 a month less. So we did the switch. It not only made sense financially but I would be there to learn the system and teach it to her and get everything re-set up for her. It took the installation guy four hours to get everything set up. And then the first difficulty was that all of the channels she likes now have different numbers. “I want channel 40.” “What station is that? What’s the name?” “I don’t know. It has the show with the dog.” So that was fun. Then I discovered that they hadn’t turned on her voicemail yet. “How can I live without a phone?” “You have a phone. It still works. Just the voicemail doesn’t work yet.” “I never should have switched. I want to switch back.”
Actually the oddest thing about the set up was the Internet speed. Speedtest.net was showing 16 Mbps for Optimum and 55 Mbps for Verizon. And yet, my downloads were slower with Verizon. With Optimum, I was seeing a very steady 2 Mbps for downloading. With Verizon FIOS, things would start out at 6 or 7 Mbps but for larger files, the speed would rapidly drop down to just 250 Kbps (or worse). I’ve read various things about this – it’s the crappy internet modem/router Verizon makes you use, or they’re not really being net neutral for service. Whatever. It was a temporary joy to be in a place that had both fast and unlimited internet. Given that I have no landline at home and am stuck tethering to my iPhone at extortionate rates and tortoise-slow speeds, I took advantage of it for the brief time I would have it.
Meanwhile, my dog continued to decline. My wife was getting frantic. We agreed that we didn’t want him to suffer but she said she would not be able to make any final decision without my being there. She was bringing him to the local vet almost daily. At one point he stopped eating and seemed to be unable to walk, but then he came back a little bit. I got my dog Bogey when he was 8 weeks old. He’s 12-1/2 years old now and I’ve been the only constant in his life. Even though there has been a succession of wives, girlfriends, maids looking after him, he always remembers he’s my dog or I’m his human. I know at this point it’s a matter of weeks, or perhaps days, and not months. I’m not ready to deal with this. One never is.
So, NYC, one week, mostly stuck in The Bronx. My final day was a shopping day, first B&H Photo/Video for me, and then Times Square for souvenirs. And, um, to watch women wearing nothing but body paint posing for photos with children. When did this become a thing?
During the course of the trip I also saw some friends and relatives, had some nice Mexican and great tequila at a place called Dos Caminos, near the 14th Street Apple store, and got to my favorite BBQ spot in Harlem, Dinosaur BBQ.
I had to book my own Ottawa/NYC travel. And while I could get a direct flight from Ottawa to LaGuardia, coming back I was unable to get a direct flight that would allow me to make my Ottawa/Vancouver flight, so I had to choose a one-stop.
First I had to fly from LaGuardia to Montreal. When I checked in, I showed them I had two separate itineraries and since 3 of 4 flights were Air Canada, could I check in and check my bags all the way through? No. I could only check in for the first two flights and would need to get my bag in Ottawa and then line up and check in again for the final two flights. And, oh yeah, while my luggage for Ottawa to Manila was free, I had to pay to check my bag for the first two flights.
It was raining and my flight left one hour late. I talked to the stewardess. “Due to the delay, when we get to Montreal I will have less than one hour for immigration, customs and getting to my connecting flight. Will I be able to make it?” “I don’t know.” Gee, that was helpful.
So we land in Montreal. I have to walk what seems like a mile to get to immigration, wait on line there, then wait to get my bag so I can clear Canadian customs, then check my bag in again and then get to the departure gate. Somehow I managed to do all of that and get to the gate just as flight #2 started boarding. No time to go outside for a smoke. No time to get food or something to drink. Air Canada serves food on board, and it looked pretty decent, but you had to pay for anything other than a soft drink and it seems to me that when one is paying what I was paying for these flights, a sandwich wouldn’t have killed them.
Then a one hour flight on a propeller plane to Ottawa. I think the last time I flew in a prop plane was in the 1970s. I was seated right next to the propellor and looked out as this thing started spinning and convinced myself there was no way this could work. Duh.
So now, back in Ottawa. I had to wait and get my bag again, and then check in for my final two flights. Two hours to kill. Lots of time to get a meal and smoke. Then the 5 hour flight to Vancouver. I’ll say this for Air Canada, great coach seats. Plenty of legroom. Very comfortable. I dug out my laptop and watched Gone Baby Gone. I’d just read the book (I’m on a Dennis Lehane kick at the moment) and wanted to see how much they’d changed for the film – a lot, as it turns out.
In Vancouver, I lined up again. Even though I didn’t need to claim and check my bag again, I wanted to do that $50 upgrade to a front row coach seat again, which I was able to do. I had another meal at the Vancouver airport because I knew the food on the flight would compare poorly to prison food.
This time the flight was pretty full, there were video screens and power at the seats. They have inflight WiFi, too expensive to be worthwhile ($5 for 30 minutes, $10 for an hour, $20 for short haul flights, $40 for long haul flights). And while other airlines are using this to stream entertainment directly to flyers’ own devices, Philippine Airlines is using it just for WiFi.
We landed in Manila at 3:40 AM. NAIA terminal 2. Four international flights came in at the same time and while this may happen every day, as you might have guessed, in Manila this means chaos. The screens at the baggage claim belts kept blanking out and not showing which belt had the baggage for which flight. I had to wait almost 90 minutes for my bag.
At 5 AM, I practically had to fight my way out of the airport because just outside of the terminal, it was total chaos. There were hordes of people waiting to meet the people who’d just arrived on those 4 jumbo jets, and no one doing anything resembling crowd control, so almost impossible to push a cart through the people standing around.
And then, of course, tons of taxi touts. The regular queues for taxis were insanely long so I did what I try to never do, go up to one of those white coupon taxi places. I tell them where I’m going and they show me on some chart that it’s 2,300 pesos. This for a taxi ride that would be well under P400 on the meter. They actually had the cojones to tell me it was because there would be so much traffic. At 5 in the morning.
So I got them down to P1,700 – and also got the driver to agree to stop at a 7-11 so I could get something to drink along the way. We made it to my house in under 30 minutes. No traffic at all, although once we hit my village I could see that at 5:30 AM there was already a ton of traffic headed to the exit gate. People leaving for work and kids going to school at 5:30 AM! I gave the driver a nice tip – he did follow my directions rather than suggesting alternative dummy routes and he did manage to find a 7-11 and pull over in a no-stopping zone and wait for me.
I walked in the house, hugged and kissed my wife, and saw my dog. He managed to stand up and come to the door, barely, his tail wagging. He has these huge sores on his back. In the photos my wife sent, I thought they were small, the size of a coin. They’re much bigger. Big enough that I almost started crying then and there. They’ve been cleaned, they’ve been covered with medication, I’m told he has no pain from them, but they look horrendous. His breathing is difficult. I smooshed up a banana and gave it to him and at least he still has an appetite and that constantly wagging tail. But I know it’s just a matter of time, maybe only days and not weeks at this point.
Later, my wife told me she wants to return to Hong Kong. She’s fed up with not being able to find a job in Manila. Discrimination is legal in Manila – age, gender, even height and weight can be specified in job ads. Even to be a manager at a crappy local chain like Inasal requires a college degree, which she doesn’t have. One of her sisters is working in a store and earning the grand sum of 250 pesos a day – that’s about US$5 a day. Far below the legal minimum wage but corruption and shoddy law enforcement ensure that this is commonplace here. Everything we’ve looked into, either she’s too old or too uneducated or it’s a pyramid scheme (aka “multi level marketing”).
Meanwhile she knows that within an hour of stepping off the plane in Hong Kong, she will have a job paying the equivalent of P100,000 a month. She’s bored, she’s frustrated and I can’t blame her. She says she’s too young to give up and just be a housewife and I understand how she feels.
But how is that going to work, us living in separate countries and maybe spending one week together every two or three months? Our helper can’t cook. I’d still be living with her daughter (and I’ll bet her mother would move in here to take care of the kid). Am I being selfish by telling her no, I don’t want her to do that?
So I’m home. Completely jet-lagged (it’s 4:30 AM and I’m wide awake). I’m stressed out about my mother. Stressed out about stuff to do with my job (which I won’t blog about for obvious reasons). Stressed out about my dog. Stressed out that I don’t have internet at home. And now stressed out about my wife.
Sorry if this post seemed excessively bitchy but it was therapeutic for me to get it out.